Saying nothing no one has not said before

How famous a line can hide in a new poem? Does a line need to be innocuous by itself in order to be at home amongst new neighbours?

 |  The Sideways Door  |   Long-form |   23-01-2015
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How famous a line can hide in a new poem? Does a line need to be innocuous by itself in order to be at home amongst new neighbours? These were the questions I asked myself as I set the prompt. I imagine that these were challenges the poets faced this month while writing their poems. Is Eliot always only himself or can he be disguised?

There were other things to look forward to: what poems and poets will people have chosen? What new poets would I discover? Would I recognise the style of a poet even if I didn't recognise the precise line or poem? Would it be better if I didn't and then followed their links and citations?

When Craig Boehman juxtaposes Neruda, Wordsworth and Maya Angelou with these lines

  • Silent and starving, I prowl through the streets
  • twelve steps or more from my mother's door.
  • Best the games of darkened doorways.

it isn't just the audacity with which he has made neighbours of writers from different continents and centuries, it is the ease and sense of the lines themselves that stand out.

Of course Eliot, Wordsworth, Ginsberg and Auden make their inevitable appearance in these poems, but the appearance of other, infrequently-quoted poets gave pleasure: Naomi Shihab Nye, Langston Hughes, Meena Alexander, Joseph Furtado, and Ranjit Hoskote. I wondered, when I put up the prompt column, whether anyone would attempt to quote from lyrics and sure enough, there are references to Louis Armstrong, Jim Morrison and bands from the eighties - of course!

And so to the poems.

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Gayatri Lakhiani Chawla has done a variation of the prompt, in that instead of choosing entire lines from poems, she has chosen to work with the titles of poems from one single collection: Ranjit Hoskote's recent book, Central Time. This could have worked much better if the titles themselves offered as much variations as the lines in the poems they headed; as it is, the composite poem 'Blink' is, like the title, mostly a collection of single words which are asked to do more work than they can handle. Where the lines are more than single words, they retain a flavour of their purpose, without entirely managing to speak to the lines preceding or following them. And yet, the effect of the poem is one of a certain kind of artistic and political immobility that is fascinating.

  • Blink
  •  
  • Monsoon Evening, Horniman Circle
  • Rain
  •  
  • Painter talking to flowers
  • Still Life
  •  
  • The Poet in Exile
  • The First and Last Portrait
  •  
  • Countdown
  • Numbers
  •  
  • Passport
  • Free Fall
  •  
  • First Lessons in Distance
  • Hymn to the Stranger

 

In David Jairaj's poem 'Overheard a mockingbird', there's a kind of borrowed musicality, a sense that the ear is attuned to hearing sounds in order to imitate them - rather like the overheard mockingbird, itself a mimic - that works rather well, given the poets he has chosen: Langston Hughes, William Blake and Vikram Seth. It's a poem that swings between darkness and redemption and back to despair but does it with a lightness of touch. Alone among the contributors, Jairaj has tried to find lines that rhyme, even though he sensibly abandons the rhyme scheme if the line happens to be right for the poem.

Sophia Pandeya's poem 'Sourcerer's Seed' is a clever song to the muse of creating from leftovers. It moves smoothly and with great skill, from line to line as if they were not borrowed at all. This is why the line from Eliot is especially jarring in its falsity and the poem would have been a much better one without it. Quite fortuitously, she has invoked Agha Shahid Ali in her juxtaposition of history and memory, in a kind of meta-referential manner.

 

Finally, Craig Boehman's poem 'Killer Moon': it's a poem that needs to be read and read again. Death and dissociation, separation and silence weave through the poem and the word 'machinery', (quoting the same poet and) appearing twice, means different things each time. This is a shifting, uncertain landscape, ill-lit, hallucinatory and dangerous. Twice, the last lines of stanzas and twice the first lines stand as oracular commentary anchoring the slipperiness of the rest of the poem.

 

Since the whole prompt was an exercise in borrowing, it seemed only right that I should filch my own title - 'saying nothing no one has not said before' is from Lucie Brock-Broido's wonderful poem 'A Girl Ago'.

I had thought that January's prompt would be a breeze, that my inbox would be flooded with contributions. I may have overestimated the ease of the prompt but what contributions there were have made me realise that ease or difficulty have nothing to do with contributions. Some prompts might be exciting, challenging and new and may invite new or occasional contributors; but there are a handful of contributors who seem to want to be along for the entire journey, no matter what the prompt is - and their firmness, month after month, makes my circle just (as Donne might have said).

Thank you all for your contributions. The Sideways Door will be back next month with a new prompt.

 

Writer

Sridala Swami Sridala Swami @sridala

Sridala Swami's latest collection of poetry, Escape Artist, has been published by Aleph Book Co. She is an alumnus of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.

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